The commercial outfit that will provide the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) with air-to-air refueling service for the next 22 years says that it will meet the forecast in-service date. By May 2014, AirTanker will have nine Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) ready on the ramp at RAF Brize Norton. It has already trained 18 aircrews, received six aircraft and begun operational flying. Chief executive Phil Blundell told AIN that his company could also assist other customers that need training on the A330MRTT–such as the UAE Air Force.
The decision by Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) to outsource aerial refueling as a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was controversial from the start. Never before had such a frontline military capability be entrusted to civilians. And although the contract signed in March 2008 meant that the MoD avoided the capital cost of replacing the RAF’s aging fleet of TriStar and VC-10 tankers, the £12.3 billion ($19.7 billion) forecast cost over the lifetime of the contract raised many eyebrows. The UK National Audit Office criticized the deal, noting that 80 percent of the average cost of AirTanker’s contracted baseline service would go on financing, capital cost and profit.
Then there was the decision to revert the conversion of “green” A330s into the MRTT configuration from Cobham in the UK to Airbus Military (AM) in Spain. AM had done the first two, but Cobham was scheduled to do the remaining 12, providing valuable jobs at its Bournemouth facility. In the event, Cobham converted only numbers three and four. Blundell told AIN that this was “a painful period,” but the decision was necessary to avoid considerable delay. Airbus Military is taking only 10 months to convert the A330s, and recent deliveries to AirTanker have been on time.
Nevertheless, delays have still occurred, thanks mostly to the UK’s new Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA). AirTanker is not the only UK defense contractor to have suffered from the MAA’s root-and-branch scrutiny of new military aircraft entering UK service. In the case of the A330MRTT, the MAA was not satisfied with the aircraft’s existing EASA and INTA (Spanish) certification, including the two supplementary type certificates (STCs) covering the military conversion. AirTanker was obliged to conduct (and pay for) many more flight tests than anticipated. The RAF was obliged to keep the remaining VC-10s in service for an additional six months.
The Voyager–the RAF name for the A330MRTT–has now gained clearance to refuel both Tornado and Typhoon fighters. This came after the new Cobham-designed high-speed variable-drag drogues (HSVDDs) extending from the Voyager’s wing-mounted refueling pods were replaced by older ones designed by the Sargent Fletcher company. The RAF claimed that the HSVDDs “tipped” more during contact with the refueling probes of its fighters. Earlier, Airbus Military adjusted the length of the hose, and the software of the capstan motor that deploys it. (An Airbus Military official told AIN a year ago that other air forces flying the A330MRTT had not identified any problems with the HSVDD. But Cobham would be making some changes to the design, and the RAF would eventually adopt it to achieve commonality with other air forces, he added.)
Before operational refueling sorties began this summer, AirTanker’s service to the RAF was limited to passenger/cargo flights. Since the A330MRTT dispenses fuel from existing tanks in the big wing, it can also carry up to 291 passengers, plus eight NATO-standard pallets of freight in the lower hold. Since January this year, AirTanker has been flying Voyager 02 far and wide from Brize Norton as a transport, with its refueling pods removed for greater aerodynamic efficiency. The company recently took over the RAF’s “Falklands air bridge,” which links the UK with its remote colony in the South Atlantic. The aircraft can also be configured for aeromedical evacuation, with up to 40 stretchers.
Voyager 02 is kept on the British civil aircraft register, and AirTanker has gained an air operating certificate (AOC) and extended twin-engine operations (ETOPS) clearance from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The significance of this relates to the “surge” fleet: five of the 14 Voyagers will be required by the RAF only when contingencies arise. At other times, AirTanker can place them with A330 operators and gain third-party revenue, subject to recall. The company says that it takes less than a month to remove or reinstall the military-specific gear: refueling pods and/or fuselage refueling units; defensive aids subsystem (DAS); and classified communications equipment.
“The MoD has the ‘benefit’ of these [five] aircraft without having to pay for them to sit on the tarmac–it is capability without the fixed cost, if you like, “ Blundell said. He told AIN that AirTanker had explored dry-leasing them, but did not find much interest. The list of airlines that the company can approach is limited by mutual agreement with the MoD, which seeks assurances that the leased-out aircraft can be returned promptly if needed. “Damp through to wet-leasing, with the aircraft remaining on our AOC, seems more likely,” Blundell added.
AirTanker must make decisions on customers for the surge fleet sometime next year. But as that time approaches, a more promising option than the airlines is becoming apparent. The European Defence Agency (EDA) has suggested the pooling of air refueling capacity, to address the serious shortfall identified by NATO during the Libyan and previous air campaigns. Blundell said that it would be “logical” for AirTanker to play a part in this, and “a great opportunity for UK Plc.” He added: “We could exploit the European demand for tankers, with our five extra aircraft, without impacting the core RAF demand. We also have scope to extend this approach beyond aircraft, to include support, training, maintenance and, critically, we have the infrastructure to deliver it.”
Blundell noted that the MoD and RAF could also task the core Voyager fleet of nine aircraft in support of partner nations. “The more the aircraft are used, the proportionally lower the fixed costs to RAF become, as well as the cost of additional tasking,” he noted.
The training facilities that AirTanker has built at RAF Brize Norton will have some spare capacity. The company could offer these to new A330MRTT customers as they build their own aircrew and maintenance teams. The French Air Force would be an obvious candidate, since it plans to acquire its own A330MRTTs, and France and the UK have signed a formal agreement for defense cooperation. But so would the Saudi and UAE air forces, which may not want to invest in simulators for their relatively small A330MRTT fleets.
Five-and-half-years into the contract, Blundell reflected on progress to date. He told AIN that AirTanker’s financial planning had been conservative–justifiably so, given that some delays had occurred that were beyond its control.
The company spent £54 million on bid costs alone. To finance the start-up–aircraft, buildings, personnel–AirTanker negotiated a syndicated bank loan of £2.2 billion. With no revenue to be earned until aircraft actually began flying for the RAF, the company also arranged a bridge loan for £170 million.
“It’s an incredibly ambitious program, very challenging, and exciting,” Blundell continued. He is confident that AirTanker will demonstrate the value of this unique approach to providing military capability. For instance, he said, “We are already demonstrating 98 percent dispatch reliability–that’s unprecedented for a military program.”